By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
It was Nov. 3, 2012. The University of Kentucky football team walked out onto the turf field at Commonwealth Stadium for the last home game of the season. Senior Day. The last game of their career for many of these football players. As the players poured out of the tunnel onto the field they expected to hear the roar of tens of thousands of Kentucky fans cheering them on. What they actually heard was some weak applause as the estimated 20,000 or so die-hard UK fans applauded their endurance if not their accomplishments.
It was one of the darkest days of many dark days in Kentucky Football history. Head Coach Joker Phillips’ last team at the University of Kentucky was about to reach an all-time low. They were about to receive a whipping from an SEC team that would ordinarily be the team receiving the whipping, not administering it.
But on this day Vanderbilt coach James Franklin pulled out all the stops as his Commodores rolled over the Wildcats 40-0. For this Senior Day Kentucky could do nothing well. Although they had some capable players — like Avery Williamson — they didn’t have enough.
Recruiting didn’t seem to be Joker Phillips’ strong suit. Neither was coaching. Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders couldn’t get his offense to score. Defensive coordinator Rick Minter couldn’t get his defensive team to stop the scoring. Such was the state of affairs for UK Football seven short years ago.
At that moment UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart knew he had to make a tough decision. The University and Joker Phillips had to part ways. Most of the fans had abandoned ship and after three seasons it appeared that a lot of the players may have abandoned ship also. What was left of the ship had been sunk by the Commodores on that fateful day in November.
But from the ashes of that defeat would rise the hiring of a new football coach. A hard-nosed defensive coordinator from Florida State named Mark Stoops. A football coach that cut his teeth playing football in the state of Ohio. One that had coached for many of the great coaches of the day, including Florida State Head Coach Jimbo Fisher.
Stoops had a plan and he began executing that plan. But the wins didn’t come easy. Two in the first season, then five in each of the next two seasons. But then the plan started to gain some traction. In 2016 Stoop’s team went 7-6 overall with a bowl appearance. In 2017 he produced the same results, 7-6 overall with a bowl appearance. Now the University was beginning to see some fruit from their long years of patience.
In 2018, playing with all players that Stoops had recruited, he saw his Kentucky Wildcats finish 10-3 with a bowl win over a perennial Big Ten power program, the James Franklin-led Penn State Nittany Lions. It was ironic, to say the least, that the coach who drove the last nail in UK’s coffin in 2012 was the one to see them rise from the ashes of that November debacle to finish with one of the best overall records in school history.
So the question I ask you, the reader is, has Kentucky Football turned the corner from historical loser to perennial winner? Does a fourth quarter loss to the Florida Gators in a game they should have won mean that Kentucky is still the “same old Kentucky”?
Some would say yes. I would say no.
Mark Stoops recruiting classes in 2018 and 2019 ranked No. 30 or better in the nation according to most recruiting services. His 2020 recruiting class currently sits at No. 22. He continues to develop players into high level NFL prospects. Look no further than Josh Allen, Benny Snell and the plethora of defensive backs led by Lonnie Johnson to show that Stoops and Company can develop talent — and top notch high school players are noticing. Stoops has owned the state of Kentucky in recruiting the last few years. He has a five-game win streak over South Carolina, a four-game win streak over the Missouri Tigers and has finished 2nd, 3rd and 2nd, respectively, in the SEC East Division over the last three seasons.
Those are unheard of accomplishments for a program that has an historical winning percentage below .500.
One game doesn’t make a season. One game doesn’t define a career and one game certainly doesn’t show the trend of a program. What shows the trend of a program is reaching milestones that have never been reached before, attracting talent that would have never considered UK before and winning games against SEC opponents at an astounding clip.
So in answering the question about has UK turned the corner, it appears to me that they have. In looking back to where the program has come from that bleak November day in 2012 to the celebration that occurred after the Citrus Bowl win in 2019 it seems like winning is starting to become a more natural process for these most recent Kentucky teams.
Will it continue? Who knows. One would think that if Mark Stoops sticks with the process and the University sticks with Stoops it should. But there are no guarantees. Just ask the Tennessee Volunteers. They are still trying to find that magic bullet and they haven’t found it yet. They have gone through three head coaches and had three winning seasons over the last decade and are sitting at 1-2 with losses to Georgia State and BYU in this 2019 season.
Hopefully UK fans will take the long view of the football program, realize how far Mark Stoops has brought this program and trust the process and the coaches. So far it looks like a winner to me.